Nuclear Energy

Kitty litter mix-up caused nuclear waste explosion

Swheat Scoop Kitty Litter

It's official. Kitty litter caused a nuclear explosion.

Savannah River National Laboratory released a report last week confirming that the February 2014 incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico was the result of an employee using the wrong type of cat litter to absorb liquid nuclear waste.

Drum 68660, brought to WIPP from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), ruptured while housed underground. The report deemed that the Swheat Scoop brand litter used by LANL was chemically incompatible with the contents of the drum. The organic ingredients reacted with the waste and created gases that increased the pressure of the drum. The materials self-heated and combusted.

The breach contaminated 21 workers with low-level doses of radiation and caused a temporary shutdown of WIPP.

"Traditional cat litter is made from various inorganic geologic silicate minerals like diatomaceous earth, zeolites or bentonites, materials that are excellent in absorbing and stabilizing chemical species like nitrates, ammonia, and urea," explains Dr. James Conca, a Senior Scientist of UFA Ventures in an opinion-editorial with Forbes.

"This is the very reason we use minerals for cat litters do not have the silicate properties needed to chemically stabilize nitrate the correct way," he added.

According to The Albuquerque Journal, the Obama administration requested $243 million in its 2016 budget to aid the plant. This is about $77 million less than a nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad will get in 2015 for recovery operations.

Earlier in March, the U.S. Department of Energy noted that WIPP would remain closed "until the source of the February 14 event is isolated and mitigated". The total cost for recovery and restart of disposal operations at the plant has not been estimated by the DOE at this time.

"Everything nuclear is proceduralized," Conca told The Verge. "It's well laid out and everything everyone does is supposed to go up and down the chain of command. When you decide on a procedure for doing something like treating this waste, you don't deviate from it. Ever. And when someone decides to deviate, that is a bad, bad thing."